Thousands of speeches have I heard and forgotten since my first byline 64 years ago.
Very few have deserved to be remembered nearly as much as Khizr Kahn‘s 368-word address to the Democratic National Convention Thursday night.
Eloquent and powerful in its simplicity and directness, it was timely, to the point, and to the heart as well as the head.
He spoke of his son Humayun, a naturalized Muslim-American, an Army captain who died saving his soldiers from a suicide bomber in Iraq.
Had it been up to Donald Trump, he said, “he never would have been in America.”
Then, in calm and measured words, he hurled a powerful challenge at Trump:
“Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.”
He pulled it from his suit pocket.
“In this document,” he said, “look for the words liberty and equal protection of the laws.
“Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look to the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities.
“You,” he said to Trump, “have sacrificed nothing and no one …”
Unless you were watching Fox “News” (why, oh why would you?) you could see and hear it live.
As reported by Variety, Fox “chose to cut away from the elder Khan’s speech, in favor of a series of other prepackaged stories.” One of them was a day-old clip of FBI Director James Comey‘s news conference on the ISIS threat.
It was as if Trump himself had called the shot.
But you can still hear and see the speech for yourself on YouTube and at other links that neither Trump not Fox can suppress.
It’s a personal issue with me. Cousins who had sought refuge in France died in the Holocaust because the United States would not let them come here. The State Department was infested at the time with anti-Semites. (Read about them in Eric Larson‘s book, “In the Garden of Beasts.”)
Among their pretexts: there might be spies and saboteurs among the refugees fleeing Hitler.
Does that sound familiar?
Fellow immigrants — unless your ancestors met the boat at Jamestown, this means you — all of us have been the intended victims, at one time or another, of bigots like Trump. Laws on immigration, voting, even property rights targeted specific ethnic groups of all races and religions. An anti-foreigner party nicknamed the Know Nothings was strongly influential in the 1840s and threatened for a time to infest the infant Republican Party, where its ghost stalks again.
Trump’s bigotry on that issue speaks for itself.
Khizr Kahn raised two other points that bear more discussion.
Has he ever read the Constitution? In one infamous interview, Trump denied that the Constitution (in the 14th Amendment) guarantees citizenship to everyone born here. Later, he vowed to “stand up for Article Two, Article Twelve, you name it …”
There are only seven articles, along with 28 amendments. For all that, it’s one of the shortest founding documents on earth. That palm-size booklet Kahn offered to lend to Trump — I have a copy also — has only 38 pages. But even that is probably way beyond Trump’s attention span.
A larger question is whether Trump, who boasts of getting his information from television, ever reads or absorbs anything.
Tony Schwartz, the guilt-ridden co-author of Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” for which he spent months shadowing the subject, told Jane Mayer in the New Yorker (July 25) that Trump “has no attention span.”
“This fundamental aspect of who he is doesn’t seem to be fully understood,” Schwartz said. ” … It’s impossible to keep him focused on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes, and even then …
“If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time …”
What, if anything, has Trump ever sacrificed?
Like many another affluent young man, Trump escaped the draft with a series of routine student deferments. In the end, he got a medical deferment despite having been active in college sports. None of that was inherently dishonorable.
But contrast that with the suffering John McCain endured at the same time as a prisoner of war in Hanoi — the ordeal that Trump has mocked because McCain couldn’t avoid capture.
And consider Trump’s 1997 interview with Howard Stern in which he described the risks he had run of catching a sexually transmitted disease as “like Vietnam … better than Vietnam, a little better …
Did it not occur to him that a lot of truly brave soldiers came home without their genitals? Or that many more never came home at all?
Or was he just being flip?
No matter. It is the unguarded comments people make that best reveals their true selves. In that unspeakably ugly moment, Trump exposed himself to be what David Brooks, The New York Times conservative columnist, recently said of him:
“He is a morally untethered, spiritually vacuous man who appears haunted by multiple personality disorders.”
And yet he might become president. God save the United States from that.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper now known as the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in suburban Asheville, North Carolina.